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Cathy Free: Free Lunch: lost tradition of Christmas windows back in 'Grand' style

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30 2011 7:03 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Six thousand pounds of candy, 15 employees and 200 glue guns. That’s what it took to create a little holiday cheer on Main Street when ZCMI designed its candy windows every year.

When the sweet tradition disappeared in 2007, along with the department store, downtown window-shopping in December became as enticing as a display of bald mannequins. What could compete with space aliens made of marzipan, citrus-sugar fish and a purple moose playing a chocolate violin?

In today’s world of “one click” shopping, the art of window-dressing isn’t what it used to be. But there is hope for those who fondly recall shopping with their eyes during the holidays, downtown.

Last week, a dozen designers — including a few who once decorated those storied ZCMI windows — put the finishing touches on 17 Christmas storybook windows at the Grand America Hotel. It’s the second yuletide window project since hotel president Bruce Fery decided last year that Main Street needed a touch of “34th Street,” with ZCMI gone and the old mall demolished to make way for a new one.

Although the displays don’t contain anything made of bubble gum, licorice or jelly beans, “holiday windows speak to the kid in all of us,” says Fery. “Every child should have memories of coming downtown to see what’s new in the Christmas windows. But that ritual has been missing in our town for a while.”

Eager to share his vision for a new holiday tradition, Fery recently joined me for a Free Lunch chat in Grand America’s tea room with Brent Watts, the creative director he hired to bring back the magic.

A Utah native, Watts recalls bundling up for the annual trek downtown with his parents on the day after Thanksgiving each year to see the tree-lighting ceremony and Christmas window-unveiling at ZCMI.

“We’d stand out there in frigid weather in anticipation, waiting for somebody to flip the switch,” he recalls. “It was always a highlight of my holiday season.”

Fery, on the other hand, grew up in western Idaho, where he was lucky to see a few plastic reindeer in the front window of his local five-and-dime every December.

Fortunately, his father took him on frequent business trips to New York City, where he delighted in the elaborate holiday department store windows of Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Macy’s, where there was often a new animated scene from "Miracle on 34th Street."

Years later, when his hotel career brought him to Salt Lake City, Fery was impressed by the Christmas-candy windows at ZCMI. Last year, he contacted Watts, the creative director for Salt Lake City’s StruckAxiom multimedia firm, hoping to bring back some old-time holiday charm.

The first Christmas window display last year — “ABCs of the Holidays” — brought more than 5,000 people to the hotel on opening night. Many of them had never ventured inside the Grand America before, thinking it was “off limits” or “unaffordable,” says Fery.

“They’d never had a reason to come in before, but because of the windows, they were able to experience the hotel in a different way,” he says. “It was touching to see such a diverse group and so many families. We knew that first night that we were on to something.”

This year’s window display tells the story of Maurice, a penguin that checks into the Grand America to enjoy the hotel’s sugar cookies but ends up on a search for the Christmas star. At the end of their own search for stars hidden in the hotel’s windows, visitors will be treated to star-shaped cookies, says Watts.

“We all have the capacity to imagine and dream,” he says, “and the wonderful thing about Christmas windows is that they help bring those qualities out. Every town deserves a tradition like this. We’re thrilled to bring it back.”

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

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